Saturday, October 06, 2018

How the Boycott of Israel Can Harm Students

By Susana Cavallo, David Greenberg, Rebecca Lesses, Jeffry Mallow, Sharon Musher, Cary Nelson
(Chair), and Kenneth Stern, the executive committee of the Alliance for Academic Freedom.

[This statement expands upon and updates an op-ed first published in the Chronicle of Higher
Education, “How the Israel Boycott Can Compromise Faculty and Harm Students.“]

In July 2014, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel published guidelines, including one instructing professors to refuse to write recommendations for students applying to study in Israel. The guidelines were immediately adopted by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. Ever since, BDS members have said that this would affect institutions, not individuals. However, the case this month of a professor refusing to write a letter of recommendation for a student wishing to study in Israel exemplifies the personal consequences of such actions.

John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor in the department of American culture at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, emailed an undergraduate student to say he had just realized she was applying to study abroad at Tel Aviv University, and therefore, in compliance with the boycott movement, he was withdrawing his offer to write a recommendation on her behalf to that university. He added that he was happy to write other recommendations for her, thus confirming that he had no doubts about her academic record, which would be a valid justification for refusing to write a recommendation.

Faculty members are free to decline requests to write recommendation letters for many reasons. They may feel they don’t know the student well enough, or they may not consider a student strong enough to earn a letter that is both honest and favorable. A faculty member is also entitled to share with a student ethical or political objections to study in a given country. Although institutions have a responsibility to warn students traveling to foreign countries about risks and to determine which institutions they will and will not establish formal relations with, individual faculty members don’t bear such responsibility. In any case, it is students who must ultimately decide what’s in their best interest.

For a faculty member to impose a political litmus test on recommendations and refuse to write to a program because it is based in a particular country violates a student’s right to apply for admission to his or her program of choice. That is what happened here.

Eleven faculty members who are leaders in or supporters of the BDS movement have posted a statement endorsing Cheney-Lippold’s decision, and BDS-affiliated faculty have also organized an online petition supporting him and a pledge for faculty, administrators, students, and staff to refuse to participate in study-abroad programs in Israel. Although the pledge does not say explicitly that they should refuse to write letters of recommendation, by urging signers to endorse the boycott and discouraging participation in study-abroad programs, it implicitly does so. For boycott endorsers, opposition to Israel has a moral status that outweighs academic freedom and even a student’s right to learn.

The statement by 11 faculty members elevates political conviction to the level of religious belief: “Professors, like any other individual, are entitled to hold political positions and act in a manner that conforms to their stated positions. … Cheney-Lippold endorses the academic boycott of Israel and, in declining to write a letter of recommendation for a study abroad program in Israel, he is aligning his actions with his stated views.”

This alarming claim would create a new faculty “right” in which individual political belief can override university policies and professional standards. If this principle were actually applied, great harm would result. Imagine Democratic law professors refusing to write recommendations for a worthy student eager for an internship with a conservative Republican judge.

Further, the online statement gives another reason to support Cheney-Lippold: “Some students, specifically students of Palestinian, Middle Eastern, and Muslim background, who attempt to travel to Israel and the Palestinian territories may be denied visas to Israel or would be denied entry into the country.” No evidence of such travel restrictions is presented, but the politicization of professional responsibilities raises real concerns in any case. Would professors then be within their rights to refuse a Muslim student wanting to study in Qatar or Saudi Arabia because it would be difficult for Jewish students to travel there? Could they refuse a recommendation for any student wanting to study in the United States, because of President Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban?

BDS-affiliated faculty have also organized an online petition supporting Cheney-Lippold, offering pledge for faculty, administrators, students, and staff to refuse to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Although this pledge does not state explicitly that faculty should refuse to write letters of recommendation, by urging signers to endorse USACBI’s boycott call and discouraging any form of participation in a study abroad program, it implicitly does so. For boycott endorsers, opposition to Israel has a moral status that outweighs academic freedom and even a student’s right to learn.
Cheney-Lippold’s action acquired an additional complication after he told the Detroit News he had in fact previously written letters for two students applying to study in Israel. “I wrote for them because I did not have tenure,” said Cheney-Lippold. “I know how people are treated without tenure.” Although this may put the unqualified character of his political commitment in question, its more serious implication is that tenure in effect may protect a faculty member’s ability to substitute political for professional criteria in fulfilling academic responsibilities.

Professional ethics and AAUP policy specifically oppose politically based actions. The AAUP’s “Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students” states: “The professor in the classroom and in conference should encourage free discussion, inquiry, and expression. Student performance should be evaluated solely on an academic basis, not on opinions or conduct in matters unrelated to academic standards.” While not specifically referring to letter-of-recommendation policies, the AAUP clearly objects to the curtailment of student free expression, political opinion, and academic choice, which would include efforts to block study in Israel.

In addition, most students who apply to study in Israel are Jewish, and Israel is a Jewish state. Thus, there is arguably an element of discrimination based on religion and national status in this refusing to support specifically those students who seek to study in Israel.

We condemn those who have responded to Cheney-Lippold’s words with harassment (including, reportedly, death threats), responses that are increasingly a part of American political life and dangerously enhanced by social media. Such vitriol can have a chilling effect on the free speech that is crucial to academic freedom. We also vehemently disagree with a petition calling for his firing. Refusing a professional obligation is not grounds for dismissal and, needless to say, nothing justifies threats against a person’s life.

But some official response to Cheney-Lippold’s breach of professional ethics is necessary; we urge the University of Michigan administration to respond more forcefully than it has. It should indicate that faculty who discriminate against students based on their political positions, religious backgrounds, or ethnic identification will face consequences.

It is important that the University of Michigan faculty senate has unanimously stated that student qualifications, not faculty political views, should determine whether one agrees to write a letter of recommendation. That effectively isolates those who politicize their professional responsibilities in this way. It will discourage some faculty from following Cheney-Lippold’s lead who might otherwise be inclined to do so. But it is unlikely to have much impact on the most strongly committed boycott activists. So we regret that the Michigan Senate did not support some form of sanction. Not writing a letter of recommendation for political reasons is not a firing offense, but it might, for example, delay or eliminate a scheduled salary increase.

Because professors at other institutions might similarly discriminate against students, particularly in light of the recent pledge, it is vital that colleges and professional associations reiterate their commitment to study-abroad programs in Israel, and clarify and then publicize policies articulating faculty members’ professional responsibilities and the consequences of their failure to perform those duties.

Faculty should understand what will happen if they deprive deserving students of recommendations based on politics. Cheney-Lippold’s action may be the first explicit case of its kind, but it almost certainly won’t be the last.

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